Author Archives: amoyaan
- 54 -
That which is well planted in the Tao cannot be uprooted.
That which embraces the Tao
will not slip away.
Those who honour the Tao
will be honoured from generation to generation.
If the Tao is cultivated in your life
you will become genuine.
If the Tao is cultivated in your family
your family will flourish.
If the Tao is cultivated in your country
your country will be an example
to all countries in the world.
If the Tao is cultivated in the world,
then virtue will be with everyone.
How do I know this is true?
By looking within myself.
To simply read and try to understand the words of the Tao Te Ching is insufficient. Each verse is an invitation to embody and actually live the wisdom of the Tao. This verse again emphasises the virtue of coming into alignment with the Tao; which is not so much something to be striven for, but simply allowed to happen. When we clear the obstructions to our true nature, we can be firmly planted in the Tao and nothing in the world of the ten thousand things will be able to uproot us.
The effects of being at one with our nature, with the Tao, spread outward like ripples across the surface of a pond, for in truth nothing exists in isolation. This allows us to cultivate the way of the Tao in all our actions and interactions: in our family life, our work life, among our friends and gradually the effects will spread outward to encompass our whole country and world. Even if the effects are subtle or seemingly invisible, they are there nonetheless.
By changing ourselves and coming into alignment with the truth of our being, which is simplicity, ease, harmony and freedom from covetousness and greed, we make it easier for others to do so. The Tao isn’t about an abstract set of concepts and beliefs — it’s about living a life of integrity, peace and harmony with the whole. This is the greatest gift we can give to the world.
If you have enjoyed this series on the Tao Te Ching, it is now available in a collected volume in both paperback and ebook format on Amazon! Be sure to check it out.
Hi everyone! I’m pleased to announce that the paperback version of my Tao Te Ching book is now available on Amazon and is currently on sale at cost price. The Tao Te Ching is a remarkable gift, and I wanted to be able to share it as such.
Five years ago I set myself the challenge of creating my own version of this ancient text. I wanted to encapsulate the best of my favourite translations, retaining the text’s integrity and poetic flourish while making some of the more cryptic statements (of which there are a great many!) a little clearer and easier to understand.
I spent time reflecting on each verse and pondering the meaning of Lao Tzu’s words and then wrote a commentary on each one. I did this for myself more than anything, but decided to share it on this and my prior blogs. A lot of people have really enjoyed my take on the Tao, which has subtly evolved over the years as my own understanding has grown. Here is my introduction to the text.
I’ve been posting the content of this book in this blog for almost two years now, and will continue to do so until I have posted all 81 verses. If you’ve enjoyed it and want to have the complete work to hand, then this is for you! It’s been available to download on Kindle and Smashwords in ebook format for some time now, and the paperback edition looks beautiful I have to say. It’s a book that’s great for keeping at your bedside and dipping into for a little inspiration and insight.
It should also be available in most other territories. The Smashwords ebook edition (which includes Kindle, ePub and many other formats) can be found here)
Hope you enjoy!
I’ve also just finished my second novel, which follows on from ELADRIA. It will be published in the Spring, along with a whole range of surprises. It’s a work I’m very proud of and a story that has been with me most my life. I can’t wait to share it with you. Hopefully now this major project is out the way, I will be able to get back into a more regular blogging routine!
- 52 -
If I have even a little sense,
I should walk the Great Way,
and my only fear would be straying from it.
The Great Way is smooth and easy,
yet people prefer the devious side paths.
That is why there is corruption.
While farmers lose their land,
government officials spend money
on weapons instead of cures
and the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible
while the poor have nowhere to turn.
To wear fancy clothes and ornaments,
stuffing oneself with food and drink,
amassing wealth to the extent of not knowing
what to do with it,
is like being a robber and
is called the crime of excess.
This is not in keeping with the Tao.
Lao Tzu noted the flaws of society around 2,500 years ago and sadly those same flaws are still very much evident today: the crime of excess, of accumulating ever-more money, possessions and power while others are penniless and starving. Why should we function like this? To behave in such a way is to be out of alignment with the Tao.
The Great Way of the Tao is the essence of simplicity itself, but it’s not a path that’s particularly attractive or alluring to the majority of people, whose egos are compelled by the accumulation of wealth and power at the expense of others. “Getting ahead” and “getting what you want out of life” is still the general modus operandi of our society. And it is the root of the corruption we see on individual and collective levels. Governments (and the various other institutions of society) focus on power, supremacy and strong economies rather than harmony, balance, equality and genuine regard for all. This is not the Great Way Lao Tzu speaks of — it’s one of the ‘devious side-paths’!
In order to live a life that’s in harmony with the Tao, in order to flow with life and achieve inner peace, crimes of excess have to go! This doesn’t mean we all have to become cave-dwelling ascetics. But it does mean that, while ensuring we take care of our basic needs, the real treasures that we pursue are inner treasures, which are treasures of the lasting kind. Are we willing to take the road less travelled and live a life in harmony with the Tao rather than be driven by the petty whims and desires of the ego?
It’s a simple choice, although not necessarily an easy one. But it is the choice between lasting peace and a life of perpetual craving, striving and continual frustration and dissatisfaction. Once the choice is made and the winding side-paths abandoned, “the Great Way is smooth and easy”. We step into the flow of life as never before.
- 52 -
All things have a common
beginning in the Tao.
All things issue from it;
all things return to it.
This beginning is the Mother of the world.
Having known the Mother,
we may proceed to know her children.
Having known her children,
we should go back and hold into the Mother.
By protecting the qualities of the Mother in us,
we will be free of sorrow.
Keep your mouth shut,
guard the senses
and life is ever full.
If you keep your mind from judging
and aren’t led by the senses and desires,
your heart will find peace.
Seeing into darkness is clarity.
Knowing how to yield is strength.
To use your inner light for understanding
is the way of cultivating the Changeless.
Gnothi Seauton were the words inscribed above the temple at the Oracle at Delphi. It translates as “Know Thyself”, which is perhaps the most powerful piece of advice ever given in the entire history of humankind. The root of all our problems is ignorance of what we are.
This verse of the Tao Te Ching advises us to trace all manifestation back to its source. Everything is this world has a common source – that source being the Tao, or the Mother of the world. Instead of getting lost in the world of the ten thousand things liberation is being aware of and rooted in the origin of all external form. In other words, observe the children (the form) but hold onto the Mother (the formless).
This means finding and realising the Tao at the core of our being. That is what is meant by Self-realisation. It is the doorway from the transient to the eternal.
The complete version of my Tao Te Ching translation and commentary is available from Amazon and Smashwords as a low-price ebook and very soon as a paperback edition on Amazon. If you’d like to keep the entire text to hand, this is for you!
- 50 -
Between birth and death,
three in ten are followers of life;
three in ten are followers of death.
And men just passing from birth to death
also number three in ten.
What is the reason for this?
Because they fear death
and cling to this passing world.
But there is one out of ten, they say, so sure of life
that they walk safely among wild animals.
When in dangerous situations, they remain unharmed.
The animals find no place to attack them
and weapons are unable to harm them.
Why is this?
Because they dwell in that place
where death cannot enter.
Realise your essence
and you will witness the end without ending.
Lao Tzu speaks of four ways that people tend to approach life. The first two are by attachment and clinging to life, by aversion and fear of death (which are but two sides of the same coin). The cycle of attachment and aversion motivates and unconsciously governs life for the majority of people. The third way is simply passing through life vainly hoping that things will get better while fearing they’ll get worse. At the root of all this is a desperate clinging to life, brought about by a fear of death, which is caused simply by our ignorance of what we truly are.
The Sage, the rarest of people, has a different approach to life because he has surrendered to life. He has no fear of death, and equally no fear of life. There is nothing he holds onto and nothing he resists. He is at one with life. It is suggested upon realising his true essence and being rooted in that, the sage is impervious to peril and danger. Whether this is meant to be taken literally or not is a matter of debate. What it perhaps means is that our lack of resistance to life and death allows for a kinder, gentler passage through life.
This doesn’t mean that we will never encounter adversity or challenge, for such is the very nature of life. But it does mean that such adversity no longer has the ability to topple us. The Sage no longer fears death or is clinging to a fragile sense of self that can be shattered by the slightest event; a hostile encounter with a stranger, an argument or even the mildest of criticisms. The Sage therefore transcends outward circumstances, remaining at one with everything.
Following on from my introductory Karma Yoga article…
How can we ever possibly hope to be free in life when we have no control over the results of our actions and the knowledge that every gain will ultimately entail an inevitable loss?
A Means of Eradicating Stress and Worry
It’s quite a predicament. It seems only natural that we’re constantly stressed! Fortunately the solution was already figured out thousands of years ago, and that’s what Karma yoga is for. Karma yoga is a simple means of eradicating stress and worry from our lives in order to create a peaceful, tranquil mind. It’s simple, easy to grasp and although it may take a little effort to reorient our mindset, it has the potential to transform our entire experience of life.
Don’t be put off by the name. Karma yoga isn’t what most people might think it is. In the west the word yoga is generally associated with contorting the body into all kinds of elaborate and exotic poses. In actual fact the word yoga has a much broader meaning. Literally meaning “to yoke together”, yoga is about creating balance and unity of mind, body and spirit and encompasses a wide spectrum of practises and teachings.
While physical yoga such as Hatha yoga has its benefits, Karma yoga is the most important yoga for day to day, moment to moment living. It’s a means of navigating through life with ease and grace, eliminating a large amount of the stress that is pandemic in our modern culture. Karma yoga is not a set of physical poses or breathing techniques. It’s simply an attitude of mind; an understanding and a way of approaching life and dealing with action and the results of that action.
Karma yoga is derived from an ancient Indian text called the Bhagavad Gita. Part of the epic Mahabharata, it features a dialogue between Arjuna, a warrior prince and Krishna, his mentor and teacher. Arjuna is a noble and honourable man who is forced to take part in a terrible battle in which he must fight against some of his most loved friends and family. Although it’s his duty to fight in this conflict to make right a terrible wrong, he is deeply confused and no longer knows what to do in life. The battle of the Gita is a metaphor for the battle we all face in our daily lives: having to deal with difficult circumstances and do things we often don’t want to do. Overcome by confusion and doubt, Arjuna lays down his weapons and turns to Krishna for advice.
The content of the Gita can be divided into two essential categories: knowledge and action, jnana and karma. Jnana yoga is the yoga of Self Knowledge and relates to understanding the true nature of reality and our identity as the limitless Self (pure awareness). This leads directly to liberation and enlightenment: moksha, or freedom; which is what we are ultimately seeking in every single action we perform. But as we learn in the text, the yoga of knowledge doesn’t really work unless the mind is first prepared and receptive; a mind that is free from stress and agitation.
That’s where Karma yoga, the yoga of action, comes in. So the Gita begins by teaching Karma yoga, which is a simple psychological tool for managing our likes, dislikes, attachments and aversions, and creating a largely peaceful, stress-free mind. “Even a little karma yoga frees one from great fear,” Krishna explains.
So what is karma yoga and how is it practised?
Karma yoga can be broken down into three basic steps:
1. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude for all that life has given us
2. Offering all our actions back to life
3. Letting go of the results and taking whatever comes as a gift
Cultivating a sense of gratitude for all that we have is important in and of itself. Gratitude is not something that needs to be forced; it comes naturally when we step back and take an objective look at just how much we have to be grateful for. Life is a gift. It’s given us absolutely everything: a physical body and all the necessary resources and conditions for that body to survive and flourish.
We are given a lifetime supply of oxygen and as long as we attend to the body’s basic needs for food, water, shelter and sleep there’s really very little we need to do to maintain it. We don’t need to worry about digesting our food, circulating our blood or taking care of respiration. It’s all done for us. We had and have parents, family, friends and people who looked out for us.
It’s also highly likely you’ve always had a roof over your head, food in your belly and enough material resources to get by in the world. Everything about our existence is miraculous! If the conditions on planet earth were even just a little different, if our orbit was a fraction closer to or farther from the sun, this would just be a barren hunk of rock floating through space. But here we are— gifted with an incredible body and mind, and all the resources and tools we need to live and experience the wonder of being alive.
Life Doesn’t Owe Us Anything
A lot of people go through life labouring under the delusion that life somehow owes them something. These people tend to live unhappy lives, full of dissatisfaction and suffering. For life owes us nothing. It’s already given us everything; everything we have and everything we are!
Karma yoga asks us to recognise the great debt we owe the world for our very existence. To live with a mindset of trying only to maximise all we can get from life is to live a miserly and permanently dissatisfied existence, because no matter how much we get it’s never enough. It would clearly be preferable to live with a mindset of giving rather than getting. To live with the intent of giving something back to life, to contributing positively to the world in some way, creates a far healthier state of mind and forms the basis of Karma yoga.
This doesn’t mean that we have to try to live up to some saintly ideal and deny our basic needs and desires. It simply means that we live our lives from a sense of gratitude, openness and expansiveness as opposed to miserly lack, greed and complacency.
It’s highly probable that life hasn’t given us all we wanted or hoped for. That’s sadly the nature of the game, and it’s true for everyone. Some people spend their lives wallowing in self pity and lamenting all the things that ‘could have’ and ‘should have’ been. This is clearly no way to live. It’s a disempowering attitude which stems from superimposing our personal likes and dislikes, our desires and aversions onto life. Again, life doesn’t factor our likes and dislikes into the equation—it has bigger concerns than our lists of petty ‘wants’ and ‘don’t wants’.
It’s important to shift our attitude back to one of wonder and gratitude at all the incredible things life has given us. These include the simple everyday miracles we tend to take for granted, such as our ability to see, hear, touch, taste and smell; to look up at the stars at night; to feel the sun on our skin; to live, love and dream. Life has given us everything. It owes us nothing. We owe it!
Offering Our Actions To Life
Once we’ve acknowledged the debt we owe the world for our very existence, the second step of Karma Yoga flows naturally from this.
We offer up all our actions, even the most seemingly insignificant ones, back to life; to the universe, God or whatever conception you have of the higher power that governs and maintains the world.
A lot of people have difficulty with the term “God” due to centuries of misuse at the hands of religion. Vedanta uses the term Ishvara to refer to the totality of the field of existence; the intelligent, impersonal force that creates and sustains the universe according to inviolable natural laws. Ishvara is both the efficient and material cause of the universe; the intelligence that shapes it and the very material and substance of creation. Everything is therefore Ishvara; everything is done by and belongs to Ishvara. It is unnecessary to be familiar with or to adopt such terms. All that is required is an understanding that the universe is governed by certain inviolable laws—laws governed by an innate intelligence over which we have no say or control. We acknowledge the greater intelligence of life which has given us everything we now have—all of which is ultimately just on loan. It doesn’t pay to be squatters in life, or to act as miserly thieves. Karma yoga is our opportunity to pay our rent to life.
Whatever we do, whatever action we perform, whether it’s some huge and ambitious undertaking or simply cleaning our teeth, we offer it as a gift back to the creative intelligence of the universe; the force that gave us our bodies and grows our hair and fingernails.
Every action thus becomes sacred; an offering to something greater than ourselves. Because we will only want to offer actions that are worthy of being offered (and not actions that are harmful to ourselves or others in some way) this will also tend to make us more conscious of the choices we are making in daily life. We will automatically tend to avoid harmful, self-abasing actions.
Letting Go of the Results
As the Bhagavad Gita states, “you can choose which actions you perform but you have no control over the results.” Having offered our actions back to life, we then recognise that the results are no longer in our hands. They never really were!
Every action contains within it the seeds of its own results. These results will be determined not only only the nature of those seeds but also the nature of the field in which they are planted (specifically, the environment and other people). For any action to take place and yield results, countless factors are involved, most of which we have no control over. Our act of doer-ship is but one among many factors that determine how things will turn out.
Releasing our actions into the world is like shooting an arrow. The moment it’s released it’s now under the control of the set of natural laws that govern the field of existence: in this case the laws of gravity, propulsion, time, space and the nature of the target. Although we’ve given it our best shot, whether it hits its target or not depends on many circumstances and conditions outside our direct control. This lack of control is precisely what creates a great deal of our anxiety and Karma yoga is perfect means for neutralising that anxiety.
So we practise Karma yoga by imagining handing our actions over to Ishvara, God, Fate, the Universe or some entity or benevolent helper. Using whichever representation of this universal creative intelligence appeals to us; we dedicate our action to it, and then imagine entire lifting the weight of responsibility—and everything we might be concerned about—over to this higher intelligence. The burden is no longer ours to bear. We might say something along the lines of “I do this for you and I give it to you. Please deal with this for me.” We’ve done our part and the pressure is now off us!
The Danger of Expectations
Because the results are not under our control we must drop all expectations about the results of our actions. This doesn’t mean we don’t want a certain outcome, but we no longer spend our time and energy agonising over something over which we have no control.
As Swami Paramarthananda notes: “Any single action can only be an infinitesimal part of the immense fabric of life, so what reasonable expectation can we have of a particular result? None. Given the complex nature of the field in which actions take place, most of our expectations will be disappointed.” Therefore, clinging to our own rigid set of expectations, desires and ambitions, we open ourselves to all kinds of frustration, disappointment and possibly bitterness.
We also fail to see to that what we think would be beneficial for us may in fact not be the best thing for us. As Douglas Adams said, “I seldom ended up where I wanted to go but almost always ended up where I needed to be.” Life is very much like that. What we might be convinced is the best result for us may in fact be something that is inappropriate and not in our best interests. As little individual beings, our intelligence is nothing compared to the vast intelligence of the universe. This realisation brings the utmost humility!
Taking What Comes As a Gift
The final part of Karma yoga is to accept whatever results come our way as prasad, a divine gift. What life brings us is based upon laws of cause and effect that cannot be circumvented. We thus learn to take the results with grace and equanimity.
Events do not happen in isolation. Everything is connected to everything else, all part of a vast and unfathomable chain of cause and effect stretching all the way back to the origin of the universe. We may not get the result we wanted, but this recognition—that things do not happen arbitrarily but according to the laws by which the universe functions—puts our whims and desires into perspective. There really isn’t an atom out of place in the universe. How could there possibly be? For this moment to exist as it is, everything that’s ever happened in the entire history of the universe had to happen as it did.
This knowledge enables us accept the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in life by recognising that our definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are ultimately arbitrary. We think we know what’s best for us, but very often we don’t. Life knows better and it trumps us every single time.
Karma yoga encourages us to see the positive, and to recognise the zero sum nature of phenomenal existence. Every upside has a downside and every downside an upside. Pleasure and pain, gains and losses, success and failure are simply the nature of life and there’s no escaping that fact.
We have been given all the tools we need to deal with whatever life brings, both the joys and the inevitable sorrows. By recognising the nature of action and its results, we are freed from the suffering and anxiety brought about by our rigid desires and expectations. We also lose the ingrained tendency to superimpose what we think life should be upon simply what is. The result can only be freedom.
Karma Yoga Summary
Karma yoga starts with an acknowledgement of the debt we owe the world for our very existence. Instead of continually trying to bleed all we can out of life, we live with an attitude of gratitude and desire to contribute something back. Everything we have and everything that believe we own is actually just on loan from life, and that includes our bodies. By living the Karma yoga spirit we are paying our rent back to life.
All our actions, even the most seemingly insignificant are offered back to whatever conception you have of a higher power. Having dedicated all our actions to this creative intelligence behind the field of existence, we recognise that the results of those actions are no longer up to us. They are no longer our responsibility, so we no longer need worry about them.
The knowledge that the vast intelligence of life, operating according to unbreakable laws of cause and effect, knows better than we do, enables us to take whatever results come our way with equanimity and evenness of mind. This creates a dispassionate, peaceful mind and a mature outlook on life. We no longer live like spoilt little children constantly making demands of life and throwing tantrums when things don’t go our way. Karma yoga is a practical approach to dealing with action and the results of action, and one that removes great stress and anxiety. It’s an approach that anyone, anywhere, in any situation can adopt with hugely beneficial results.
In Vedanta, the ultimate aim of yoga isn’t simply to make us feel good, but to qualify the mind for moksha (liberation or enlightenment). Yoga and meditation don’t bring about enlightenment directly, but they do cultivate the pure, calm and tranquil mind that is necessary for jnana yoga, the yoga of Self Knowledge, the means by which the individual is freed from the bondage and suffering caused by misidentification and superimposition—ie, confusing the Self (pure awareness) with the apparent self (the limited body/mind entity; reflected awareness). This will be the subject of a future series of articles about Vedanta as a means of Self Knowledge and freedom from psychological suffering.
Stress is the great pandemic of modern life. The world is constantly throwing demands and challenges our way, and these are interwoven with our own assorted desires, fears, habits and conditioned responses. Every day consists of a seemingly never-ending array of karma; countless actions we must undertake from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we nod off to sleep at night.
The Fundamental Desire
The motivation behind our actions, dividing action into three basic categories: those motivated by desire for security (artha), desire for pleasure (kama) and the desire to follow duty and virtue (dharma). What do these all have in common? The motivation behind every single action we take is the desire for freedom (moksha).
We want to be free of ignorance so we spend a significant chunk of our life in education. We want freedom from insecurity so we work to make money. To be free from loneliness we seek out relationships. To be free from boredom we occupy ourselves with stimulating pursuits. We want freedom from unhappiness so we spend our life chasing the things we believe will make us happy. Heck, even brushing our teeth is motivated by the desire for freedom: freedom from toothache! Every single action we undertake and everything we want and pursue in life is born of this fundamental desire to be free.
Unfortunately there’s a big problem when we rely on an action to bring us freedom. Because although we’re able to undertake certain actions, we ultimately have no say in the result of those actions.
People rarely like to admit that, but if the opposite were true—if we were able to control the results of our actions—then everything we ever did would be successful. Every time we bought a lottery ticket we’d surely hit the jackpot! Sadly life doesn’t work like that.
The Big Problem In Life
This explains a basic human insecurity. We never know how things are going to turn out. We spend our lives doing things we think will bring us freedom, but we’re constantly anxious about the results of our actions because those results are not up to us. We want what we want, when we want it and we do what we can to make that happen—but the truth is, life doesn’t care what we want. We have our assorted likes and dislikes, our hopes, desires and expectations, but life has a whole lot of other things to factor into the equation. Life will give us what it gives us based on innumerable factors, driven by inviolable laws.
This is the source of much of our stress and worry. Because we have no say in how things turn out, life is unpredictable and stressful. To confound matters, even when we do manage to achieve our desires—the perfect relationship or the prestigious, well-paying job—we know deep down that anything that can be gained in life can, and in time will be lost. Nothing lasts forever and life is constantly chopping and changing. As my teacher often says, life is a zero sum game! Every gain entails a loss and every loss a gain. That’s just the way it goes and there’s no changing that.
So how can we ever possibly hope to be free in life when we have no control over the results of our actions and the knowledge that every gain will ultimately entail an inevitable loss?
The next article will reveal the ancient art of Karma Yoga, the secret to living a stress-free life. Stay tuned!
I received some requests to continue my Tao Te Ching series, so here goes :) I also intend to blog a little more often and get back into the swing of things now that work on my second novel is finally nearing completion!
- 49 -
The Sage has no fixed mind;
she understands the mind of the people.
She treats those who are good with goodness.
She also treats those who are bad with goodness
because goodness is the nature of her being.
She is kind to the kind.
She is also kind to the unkind
because kindness is the nature of her being.
She trusts people who are trustworthy.
She also trusts people who are not trustworthy.
This is how she gains true trust.
The Sage lives in harmony with all below heaven.
Her mind is like space.
People don’t understand her.
They look to her and wait.
She sees everything as her own self;
she loves everyone as her own child.
Lao Tzu challenges us to change the way we relate to the world and other people. It’s easy to be nice to those that are nice to us, to repay kindness to the kind and to trust those we deem worthy of our trust. But the Sage, living in alignment with the Tao, does not discriminate or differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. She treats all with love, kindness and compassion regardless of who they are and how they conduct themselves. In fact, the people who behave in the most dysfunctional of ways are invariably those most in need of love and kindness.
Shifting to this mindset can pose a real challenge, for it seems only natural to reward kindness with kindness and repay hostility with hostility. The Sage, however, shines upon everyone in much the same way as the sun does. The sun shares its light with everyone. It never discriminates; judging who is worthy of unworthy of receiving light. It simply shines and shines, never holding back, for that is its nature.
Lao Tzu is suggesting that we be the same. Some people may gratefully receive the light we shine, whereas others may react in a less gracious manner. But is it possible to love, accept and be kind to everyone regardless of how the mind might be inclined to judge them? For the light of awareness that illumines all these different body/mind/ego entities is the same in each of us.
This brings to mind one of my favourite quotes by Hafiz:
“Even after all this time, the sun never says to the Earth “you owe me”. Look what happens with a love like that: it lights up the whole sky.”
Life is nothing but the unending dance of karma. Karma is the engine that drives phenomenal existence; an unfathomably immense, interwoven chain of causes and effects that stretches all the way back to the origin of the universe.
Karma is an interesting topic, albeit one that’s frequently misinterpreted and misunderstood. Karma is a term that originates in the oldest of the ancient Indian Vedas, and which has gone on to greatly influence other traditions (including Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, etc) and in recent decades has even come to permeate Western popular culture.
In fact, a few years ago a popular US sitcom called My Name is Earl based its entire premise on karma; featuring a well-intentioned redneck attempting to systematically clear his karma by atoning for his past misdeeds. It was a charming and genuinely funny show and it did an interesting job of tackling the law of cause and effect. The show was at times a little confused in its approach to the topic, often depicting karma as some kind of supernatural deity or force, deliberately testing and teasing Earl as he tried to balance his karmic record. As often happens when concepts and ideas are appropriated and decontextualised by foreign cultures, things tend to get a little distorted in translation as two different world-views collide.
Karma is action
Karma is actually pretty simple, although it is a subtle, nuanced topic, open to misinterpretation.
So what actually is karma? Karma is a Sanskrit word that literally means “action”.
Everything we do is karma. Our lives are basically non-stop karma — from brushing our teeth first thing in the morning to switching our bedside light off at night. Karma refers not just to physical actions but also subtle actions, such as the thoughts we think, the desires we entertain and the intentions we hold.
Karma of course takes into account not only these actions, but the corresponding effects of those actions; on the body, mind and the world around us. Karma refers to cause and effect, action and reaction, and the inextricable relationship between the two. In common usage most people use the word karma to refer to the consequences of an action, but karma actually encapsulates both the cause and the effect, the action and the result, because the two are are inseparable.
Everything we think, say and do is a result of past karma and everything we think, say and do creates additional karma. Whatever karmas we perform, whatever actions we do, creates an impression not only on the world around us, but in our own psyche as we will learn — and these impressions can be positive or negative depending on whether they create helpful or harmful results and tendencies.
Good and bad karma
Good karma is called punya karma and bad karma is called papa karma. If I do something kind for someone with a pure motive, I will get punya: the other person will be grateful and appreciative and I will feel good about myself. This person may even be inclined to do something thoughtful for me return. If I do the same charitable act but with an impure motive (such as perhaps wanting to manipulate the person in some way), I am likely to generate papa: I’ll be unhappy if the other person doesn’t respond in the way I wanted them to and I probably won’t derive any joy from their gratitude because making them happy was not my intention. So the karma we accrue is largely based on motive.
If I was to go out and rob a bank or assault someone, I would most certainly be generating papa karma. Sooner or later I will be held accountable for my actions. The police will catch up with me and throw me in jail and I will also have to deal with the varying levels of psychological misery I’ve created for myself and others. Karma rebounds on both the gross and subtle levels; not only physically, but psychologically and spiritually.
Karma and vasanas
So what is it that drives us to perform and accumulate either good or bad karma? The simple answer is what we’ve done before. Our karma is driven by our past actions. As mentioned before, the karma we perform—the actions we do and thoughts we think—creates impressions not just in the world around us, like throwing pebbles into a lake, but also at the core of our own psyche.
Whenever we perform an action, be it gross (physical action) or subtle (on the level of thought), it creates an imprint, a groove in consciousness called a vasana. The more we do something, the stronger the vasana gets and the more likely we will be to repeat the action in the future. If I eat a delicious slice of chocolate cake for the first time and I enjoy it, it immediately creates a vasana, a little imprint in consciousness. From that point on, the more I eat chocolate cake, the more I reinforce that chocolate cake vasana and the stronger it becomes until it begins to drive my actions.
This initiates a quite unconscious cycle of vasana-kama-karma, whereby the unconscious imprint (vasana) creates desire (kama) which compels me to act on it (karma). And of course, by acting out the desire and scoffing yet another slice of cake, I only reinforce that cake vasana and the cycle continues.
The human psyche is driven by the vasanas. Most of the time we are just big vasana machines, our vasanas governing our desires and aversions, which are then acted out as karma—which then self-replicates, reinforcing itself again and again. It takes a significant level of self-awareness to get become aware of and to change these behavioural patterns; to master our karma.
The three types of karma
Vedanta outlines three different types of karma: sanchita karma, prarabdha karma and kriyamana karma.
Sanchita karma is karma in its seed state, caused by actions we have performed in the past, leaving a store of either positive (punya) or negative (papa) impressions in the causal body, or the unconscious. The causal body is the root of all the vasanas, the tendencies to act out our desires and aversions. This is karma which has accumulated over lifetimes is stored in subtle form, in a dormant seed state that has yet to fructify.
From the seed state we move to prarabdha karma, which is the portion of sanchita that will sprout and fructify in a particular lifetime. Prarabdha is accordingly responsible for determining the constitution of our character and personality and the experiences it magnetises. When the prarabdha eventually burns out, the body is shed.
The third type of karma is kriyamana or agami karma, which is the karma we happen to be creating in the present. Whether punya or papa, the seeds all get added to the store of sanchita, which will then fructify at a later time, and thus the cycle continues.
Determinism and free will
Karma is a mechanism that explains the immense variety evident in human beings from the time of infancy onward; not just in terms of psychological makeup, but even the striking diversity found in physical bodies. It weaves the fabric of our lives, forming the very structure of our psyche. This may sound deterministic and it is to a degree. We like to think we are agents of free will, but when I reach out to grab a slice of cake is it actually me that’s making that decision or is it my cake vasana, the subtle karma based on past actions that generates that almost uncontrollable urge to gorge myself on irresistible cake?
Neurologists have now shown that our decisions are made before we even think we’ve consciously made them. That is the power of our vasanas, the pull of past karma. Yet human beings are unique in that they do apparently have a degree of free will. Understanding the mechanics of karma can be liberating when we realise that by following right action and generating punya, we have the ability to shape our future within the limits of whatever prarabdha is outworking. We do this by following dharma, which is an innate, universal and in-built code of right action (an important topic which ties in with karma, and which I will cover in a separate article).
Some people view karma as a kind of cosmic force of reward and punishment, but the truth is subtler than that. Karma is simply the law of causation and consequence. Even the smallest stone thrown into a pond creates ripples. The law of karma is completely impersonal, a system of innumerable factors endlessly operating in this, the field of phenomenal existence. Karma is no different to gravity in that sense; it works impersonally and for everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you throw something in the air, gravity will bring it back down to earth.
Sometimes it can be perplexing when we see people who are clearly not the most virtuous of characters but who seem to get away with lying, cheating and stealing while enjoying success, power and prestige. Ultimately everyone is accountable for their actions, for their karma, whether punya or papa, will definitely fructify and at some point catch up with that person. But it may not happen immediately; the karma may be worked out at a later time. It could be that such an individual is running off some positive punya karma, which will of course eventually run out.
There have been a number of cases in the news lately of well-known celebrities and entertainers who were pedophiles and yet through the punya generated by significant charity work and the like, managed to get away with their actions for decades. But once the good karma has run out, the bad karma catches up with them and they are forced to atone for their actions.
Karma and Reincarnation
For many, karma is synonymous with reincarnation. Reincarnation is a subtle topic, far subtler than most people generally understand it, and depends really on how you look at it. Creation exists by constantly cycling and recycling itself, for matter cannot be created or destroyed, only altered into different forms. Clearly this happens to the physical body at the time of death. The matter of our bodies will disperse and change form to become all manner of new forms. But what of our consciousness? Will the person I am now reincarnate into another life? According to Vedanta, the answer is yes but no.
The person I am now is unique to this life. This person has a name, a certain physical body, was born and lives in a certain place, has certain parents and friends and circumstances that are unique to him and that have shaped his experience of life. He can’t reincarnate because, if I were to go through careful analysis, I can’t even prove that he’s ‘real’ to begin with. If I was to try to find and point out this person called Rory, I’d be in for a real challenge. I’d be able to find assorted components…a body is sitting here, and there are certain thoughts and memories and desires and aversions arise in awareness, but where is ‘Rory’ in any of this? It’s impossible to pin him down. All I can find is a baseline awareness and certain components appearing in awareness that I lump together and label ‘Rory’.
In a future incarnation, what will I be? I won’t be the person I am now. I won’t have the same memories, I’ll have a different body, a different name, different parents and circumstances, a different environment, different circumstances and different prarabdha karma to work out. So, the person I think I am won’t reincarnate. All that’s actually here to begin with is awareness appearing to be a person through a certain body and mind, which functions as what is called an upadhi — a limiting adjunct, something that makes one thing appear to take on the appearance and qualities of something else (in this case making limitless awareness appear to be a person).
So what does reincarnate? Karma — in the form of the vasanas; the content of the causal body/unconscious. Awareness will have a different form, a different name and wholly different circumstances, assuming the guise of a whole new person, and from the store of sanchita, different karmic seeds will sprout. Heck, perhaps if I don’t resolve it in this lifetime, the cake vasana will be back…
It’s important to note that we can break the cycle at any time as we can transcend karma with jnanam — knowledge. That’s what Vedanta is for; a sophisticated, time-tested means of Self knowledge which, when assimilated by a prepared mind, leads to moksha, or liberation. The cycle of personal karma is brought about by an ultimately erroneous sense of doership, caused by taking ourselves (awareness) to be something that we’re not (the person/mind-body complex). (The issue of doership is a crucial understanding in Vedanta and is beyond the purvey of a single article, as it requires careful and deliberate unfolding, utilising the unexamined logic of one’s own experience).
To be Self-realised is simply to shift one’s sense of identity from the doer/mind-body complex back to the Self, which is pure awareness; that which ever-witnesses and transcends the phenomenal. In doing so, the jnani, the Self-realised being, is no longer bound by the wheel of karma; karma is now impersonal. In some ways the jnani is like an animal, living in complete accord with his or her own nature, free from karma because with no sense of autonomous doership, there is nothing to bind him/her. Prarabdha karma still plays itself out for the duration of the incarnation, but the store of sanchita is void, because there’s no one to take ownership of it; like a parcel sent to a house in which no one lives anymore.
As James Swartz says in his commentary of Shankara’s Tattva Bodha (available here):
“Just as the dreamer becomes free of all actions he or she performed in the dream on waking up, the realised soul is freed from sanchita and agami karma when he or she wakes up to the knowledge “I am whole and complete, actionless awareness”. Even the prarabdha karmas that fructify in his life will not affect him. Just as a man who views himself in a distorted or concave mirror knows that he is free from the limitations of the distorted image, a Self-realised soul also knows that he is not bound by the limitations of the body and the mind.”
In conclusion, karma is a key understanding in helping us make sense of action and reaction, cause and effect and how every single action generates both seen and unseen consequences. At its most basic level, it seems absurdly simple: do good things and we’ll accrue good results. But a more thorough and nuanced understanding helps explain why we tend to behave the way we do and how the momentum of our past actions, in thought, word and deed, influence us in the present moment and indeed how they affect our future.